In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.484–425 BC) describes the casus belli that led to the Persian invasion of Egypt under Cambyses II, the Egyptian defeat at Pelusium in 525 BC, and the establishment of the Achaemenid dynasties in Egypt.
The Egyptian pharaoh at the time, Amasis II (reigned 570–526 BC), was not of royal blood. He was originally a general who commanded the native troops in the Egyptian army; following a brief civil war, he overthrew the ill-fated pharaoh Apries. While Amasis’ reign was stable, and financially beneficial to Egypt, he had many enemies within the Egyptian court. Among these was a doctor whom Amasis had forced to travel to Persia at the request of King Cambyses II. Angry and bitter, this Egyptian doctor now advised the Persian king to demand one of Amasis’ daughters as his wife:
ταῦτα δὴ ἐπιμεμφόμενος ὁ Αἰγύπτιος ἐνῆγε τῇ συμβουλῇ κελεύων αἰτέειν τὸν Καμβύσεα Ἄμασιν θυγατέρα, ἵνα ἢ δοὺς ἀνιῷτο ἢ μὴ δοὺς Καμβύσῃ ἀπέχθοιτο. ὁ δὲ Ἄμασις τῇ δυνάμι τῶν Περσέων ἀχθόμενος καὶ ἀρρωδέων οὐκ εἶχε οὔτε δοῦναι οὔτε ἀρνήσασθαι· εὖ γὰρ ἠπίστατο ὅτι οὐκ ὡς γυναῖκά μιν ἔμελλε Καμβύσης ἕξειν ἀλλ᾽ ὡς παλλακήν.
Out of resentment, the Egyptian by his advice induced Cambyses to ask Amasis for his daughter, so that Amasis would either be wretched if he gave her, or hated by Cambyses if he did not. Amasis, intimidated by the power of Persia and frightened, could neither give his daughter nor refuse her; for he knew well that Cambyses was not going to take her as his wife but as his concubine. (Herodotus Histories 3.2)
Amasis certainly had daughters to send. One of these, Nitocris II, is particularly well attested in terms of historical evidence: she held powerful political and religious positions at the Karnak Temple in Thebes, making her both influential and wealthy. Evidently fearing that she would be relegated to the status of a minor wife, Amasis made a costly mistake: he forced another member of the royal court, Nitetis, to travel to Persia and pretend to be his daughter. Nitetis had previously enjoyed the status of a full princess: she was the daughter of Apries, the pharaoh Amasis had overthrown and killed. Unsurprisingly, Nitetis told Cambyses of the deception; this became the basis for Cambyses’ grudge against Amasis and Egypt.
While this may seem a rather fanciful story, it is nevertheless grounded significantly in its historical context. Diplomatic marriages were common across the ancient world, and never more so than during the Late Bronze Age – coinciding with Egypt’s 18th and 19th Dynasties (c.1550–1079 BC). During this period, a complex network of gift-giving and marriage alliances maintained mostly peaceful relations between Egypt, Mitanni, Assyria, Babylon and later, the Hittite Empire.
Many of these relationships and marriages are attested by the texts known collectively as the Amarna Letters. Originating from the 18th-Dynasty Egyptian capital at Tell el-Amarna, these consist of a corpus of cuneiform tablets, including diplomatic communications that were sent to Egypt during the reigns of notable 18th-Dynasty kings including Amenhotep III (1388–1351 BC), Akhenaten (1351–1334 BC) and, of course, Tutankhamun (1332–1323 BC). Many of these missives provide fascinating insight into Egyptian rulers’ somewhat one-sided attitude towards diplomatic marriages, as exemplified by the numerous marriages of Amenhotep III.
Besides his Great Royal Wife (primary queen), an Egyptian by the name Tiy, Amenhotep was also wedded to two princesses, named Gilkukhipa and Tadukhipa, who both hailed from the Kingdom of Mitanni. In addition, he was also husband to the sister of King Kadashman-Enlil I of Babylon – and was actively negotiating to marry one of Kadashman-Enlil’s daughters as well. This led to a rather ill-natured exchange wherein the Babylonian king complained of effectively losing his sister:
Here you are asking for my daughter in marriage, but my sister whom my father gave you was already there with you, and no one has seen her so as to know if now she is alive or if she is dead.
This rather cavalier attitude to a diplomatic bride may have been the fate which Amasis feared for his daughter: that she would be shipped off to a distant palace and abandoned there as a glorified hostage, enjoying little to no status.
To return to Amenhotep III’s grumpy exchange with Kadashman-Enlil: having let the issue of his sister drop, the Babylonian king turns to one of his own demands. In a previous missive (now lost) he asked Amenhotep to send one of his own daughters, a princess of Egypt, to Babylon to be his wife. But Amenhotep, despite already being married to Kadashman-Enlil’s sister, and also in the midst of negotiations to marry his daughter, seems to have refused this request outright saying: “From time immemorial, no daughter of the king of Egypt is given to anyone.”
A frustrated Kadeashman-Enlil asks the Egyptian king why this rule is even in place: “You are king, you do as you please!” But to no avail. Rather pathetically, the Babylonian king then attempts to pressure Amenhotep to send any high-born Egyptian woman to the Babylonian court, so that Kadashman-Enlil might pretend she is an Egyptian princess: “Send me a beautiful woman as if she were your daughter. Who is going to say she is no daughter of the king.” But Amenhotep refuses to budge.
This exchange is noteworthy in that it foreshadows Herodotus’ account of Cambyses and Amasis. For Amasis also refused to send one of his own daughters; then he sent a substitute as a ruse. The difference is obviously that in the story recounted by Herodotus, Cambyses was not in on the ruse leading to his violent reaction. In addition, the one-sided nature of the relationship between Egypt and her allies raises the question: why would the king of Babylon (and indeed other rulers) accept such an unfair arrangement?
The answer may be related to Egypt’s perceived power at the time. It is not true that no Egyptian princess was ever given to a foreign ruler. During the Second Intermediate Period (c.1650–1550 BC), at least one female member of the Egyptian royal family was married off to one of the foreign Hyksos kings who ruled over northern Egypt. But the situation was very different. The Egyptian royal family at that time (really a noble family from Thebes) had effectively been reduced to the status of vassals to the Hyksos, and thus were negotiating from a position of extreme weakness. By contrast, Amenhotep III, ruling at the height of Egypt’s military, political and economic power during the 18th Dynasty, clearly felt he had a right to refuse such requests.
Was it then simply a matter of perceived power within the international community that decided whose daughters married which kings? Perhaps. But gold may also have played a role. Egypt during the 18th Dynasty had access to multiple gold mines in the Eastern Desert and Lower Nubia. In fact, many of the Amarna Letters revolve around the desire of various foreign kings for Egyptian gold. Kadashman-Enlil himself even states that he needs Egyptian gold in order to pay for a construction project asking Amenhotep to “send me whatever is on hand, as much as possible.”
A letter from the king of Assyria, Ashur-Uballit, to Amenhotep’s successor Akhenaten is even more explicit: “Gold in your country is dirt; one simply gathers it up. Why are you so sparing of it? I am engaged in building a new palace. Send me as much gold as is needed for its adornment.” The phrase is echoed by another ruler, King Tushratta of Mitanni, who writes to Akhenaten’s mother to complain that her son has sent him gilded wooden statues, rather than solid gold statues: “With gold being the dirt in your son’s country, why […] has he not given them to me?” Perhaps generous Egyptian gifts of gold allowed the kings of Babylon, Mitanni and Assyria to save face and accept Egypt’s quirk with regards to diplomatic marriages.
A similar situation arose at the end of the 18th Dynasty when the young King Tutankhamun died without an heir. His widowed queen (and half-sister) Ankhesenamun decided to contact an enemy ruler, Suppiluliuma, the King of the Hittite Empire, with an unorthodox request: she asked him to send one of his sons to Egypt so she could marry him. This would have meant that Suppiluliuma secured the throne of Egypt without, as it were, firing a shot. Understandably, the Hittite king reacted with both confusion and suspicion. He despatched an envoy to Egypt to verify the queen’s request and, having satisfied himself of its legitimacy, despatched one of his sons, Prince Zannanza. However, the young Hittite prince died en route to Egypt; the Hittites accused the Egyptian court of organising the assassination.
This particular story is narrated only in Hittite sources; there are no Egyptian ones to corroborate it or add any further context. But it highlights a very real fear that may have been at the heart of Egyptians’ unwillingness to allow royal daughters to marry foreign rulers – even pretend royals: there was potential for allowing a foreign-born prince a legitimate claim to the Egyptian throne.
But the Pharaohs’ rule seems to have been intrinsically linked to Egypt’s internal stability, wealth and international power. In 1 Kings 3:1 it is stated that:
Solomon became allied to Pharaoh king of Egypt by marriage, and took Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought her into the city of David, until he had made an end of building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem round about.
This event and its historicity are rather murky because neither Pharaoh nor his daughter are named. But if it is taken as being, at least in part, inspired by a historical event, it almost certainly involves one of the Egyptian rulers of the 21st Dynasty (c. 1077–943 BC). Egypt at the time was in the midst of its Third Intermediate Period, and was not a united country. Instead, various minor kings ruled the land. Unlike the reign of Amenhotep III, the Egypt of this period was no longer an international powerhouse. That the Egyptians permitted this marriage may then reflect both the strength of Solomon and the comparative weakness of Egypt.
In this context, Cambyses’ request takes on a subtly different meaning. Far from being the foundation of some kind of Egypto-Persian alliance, his request can be seen as an attempt to force Amasis to acknowledge implicitly his own weakness, as well as Egypt’s weaker position in relation to Persia. Both Cambyses and Amasis must have been very aware of the diplomatic rule that is so eloquently laid out in the Amarna Letters: “From time immemorial no daughter of the King of Egypt is ever given to anyone.” They might also have been aware of the unwritten qualification: “unless Egypt is in a position of weakness, in which case giving me a daughter shows me that you acknowledge my supremacy.”
Amasis may already have suspected that war with Persia was coming. But the Egyptian king was caught between a rock and a hard place: he could refuse the request and trigger a conflict, or else send his daughter, who might merely become a lesser wife of Cambyses’, but could still give birth to a half-Persian son who would have an automatic claim on the throne of Egypt. There was a third option: he could send an imposter and hope that his ruse would go undetected. In the end, the Persian king presented Amasis with a problem to which, unlike the Gordian Knot, there was no easy shortcut.
Nicky Nielsen is a Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on the material culture of Egypt’s New Kingdom and Late Period, as well as international relations during the Late Bronze Age.
A.R. Schulman, “Diplomatic marriage in the Egyptian New Kingdom,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38 (1979) 177–93.
A.N. Shoeib, M. Fekri, & M. Massaud, “The diplomatic role of the royal women in ancient Egypt,” Journal of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels-University of Sadat City 5 (2021).
M.H. Feldman, “Ambiguous identities: the ‘marriage’ vase of Niqmaddu II and the elusive Egyptian princess,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 15 (2002).
|⇧1||All translations of the Amarna Letters are taken from W.L. Moran’s edition of The Amarna Letters (Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, MD).|